Imogen Thomas: Adelaide, New York, Brewarrina, Return

October 7, 2018
The filmmaker’s first feature, Emu Runner, was a surprise selection for the prestigious Toronto Film Festival, and it’s about to premiere on home soil at the Adelaide Film Festival.

BEGINNINGS

I did my undergraduate in South Australia, I trained in theatre originally. I went to Flinders University. I went on a tangent of being a set and costume designer. I always used to tell everyone, I’m not trained but everyone kept giving me jobs, so I don’t know what that was about. And then on the side at Flinders I also did a double major. I studied Screen Studies and had a passion for that. That’s when I started making short films. I realised I love this and that I needed to get more training. I applied for NYU, the graduate film program and got in.

AMERICA AND 9/11

I went over in the late ‘90s. That was a very transforming process for me and a time for reinvention. It was a time to discard the theatre world and become something different and explore new ideas. September 11 was a life altering moment. It was just a time of total disorder and an unsettling sense of being so purposeful before – you had meetings all booked for the next day to do this and do that and this script was so important and that’s so important – and suddenly it’s not important.

For me it’s kind of a strange little time capsule. There have been a lot of films made about it and it’s created a lot of reflection. It’s very visceral. I can remember everything. I remember people listening to the radio on the streets. Suddenly people coming out and trying to sell water. All these details I remember very distinctly. A priest on Broadway, doing a prayer as the towers came down. It was all these strange little things. And I wrote a script the week after, When the Dust Settles.

One very profound thing that happened, post that event, which was the catalyst of my story… It was that a homeless person had died, 2 days after the event, on the street. I was going to go see my professor and I had a meeting and I was sort of staggered by people’s attitudes. There was no empathy or compassion for this one man, this John Doe. There was compassion for this greater disaster and there was something incongruent there for me. Nothing to do with 9/11. He just died. He was an alcoholic. But, he was someone’s child. That was the first thing that I could think of. I had passed this man for many days, he always had his shopping trolley. He’d made these ships out of Styrofoam and things he’d found on his travels around New York City streets. I’d noted him and I’d throw down a few coins when I passed, but you don’t really engage with people. That’s what I realised. I am complicit in that as well.

And it also made me look at myself – that I’d become hard too. I’d started to become bleaker. America is a place of contradictions. It’s built-on dreams, but there are also people living very tough.

COMING HOME

I found it very hard to anchor myself anywhere. I think I’m a bit of a nomadic person and realised there and then that maybe America wasn’t my home. Australia has a lot more socially conscious systems – we have a good health system, public schooling. In America there are some ideologies that don’t line up with my ideologies.

I had a girl with someone who is an early childhood teacher and also a child psychologist. I was the least equipped mother, and it was not on my trajectory. Pregnant and having a baby I thought I could continue on that trajectory. But the realities and demands of having a child and having to be present – he was adamant, ‘we have to be present for this baby. This baby needs your attention. You’re its mother’. And to take that on… So, for the first meetings I had I’d take a stroller and have one producer wheel the baby while I’m trying to negotiate. And very quickly I had to go – ‘I have to take time out. Have a little hiatus from this.’

BREWARRINA

I got an opportunity to go to Brewarrina with a non-for-profit organisation in 2003. I had a toddler and I was going to a women’s shelter, Arganya.

I was briefed and then I went to the community and realised that the hifalutin ideas of the city didn’t match the reality and that it would actually be exploitative and gratuitous to bring out a camera. That these women were vulnerable. They were victims of domestic violence. 15 years ago, going to a women’s shelter was not commonplace, there was a lot of stigma and there was also backlash. So, I just realised I needed to be much more pragmatic in that situation. I needed to just make cups of tea. I needed to hang out the washing. I needed to entertain small children. And because I had a child myself and I was struggling we had something in common. It broke down the barriers straight away. But also, I felt the great struggles, the hardships.

FRAYNE BARKER

Initially I was there for three weeks. My partner, he had my daughter, so I was juggling that. He was in the next little community, about an hour away. I was going backwards and forwards. He was linking me with the Indigenous Preschool teacher in Brewarrina, Frayne Barker. I just said to her ‘What can I do?’. It’s easy to go ‘this isn’t my story. I’m not Indigenous. I’m not embedded in the community in the sense that I don’t live here’. But also, I felt a real strangeness to turn my back and walk away and kind of go ‘I didn’t see it’ and do nothing. You’ve had the privilege to have that conversation and have people tell you their most intimate stories and then you feel ‘Gosh. Why don’t we all know about this’. And so, I felt, maybe there’s a way to tell this story.

I had another child. I have two little girls, and then I decided ‘ok, maybe there’s the possibility to make another film’. And Frayne just turned to me and said, ‘What could you make a film about?’ I went ‘I can think of lots of things that I could make a film about.’ Just hearing stories, anecdotes about prejudice, racism. And you feel it in a community, you feel it in the day to day exchanges. How their experiences and my experiences are different. And it just feeds your imagination.

MIXED BAG

I came up with a series of vignettes, thumbnail sketches. And I pitched them to her [Frayne]. Let’s just say I had six ideas – she said, ‘I like that one’. A very simple story, a fish out of water story – Mixed Bag. A woman hits a kangaroo on the outskirts of town and she has to pull in and get her car serviced – she has to spend a day in town. And through the course of the day, she’s transformed. She doesn’t realise she has prejudice, but she has prejudice. And through that little film – the outsider was played by an outsider, an actress. And the rest I cast within the community. The strong outcome of the film – and yes, it is important to create the best film you can possibly create – was the process. That is equally as intrinsic and important to me. How I work as a filmmaker making the film is as important as after the film is made. I have a responsibility to those people. You don’t blow in, make your film and then…

EMU RUNNER

Over the years, there’s this narrative that keeps coming out and this thread in in my Indigenous friends is that they experience grief and death; it’s a big thing in their lives. And just the impact I witnessed on their lives. I watched their lives suddenly shut down. How paralysed they are by it. How it makes them question their very existence.

On one of my first trips to Brewarrina, out in Northern Western New South Wales, especially going on this road to Goodooga. There’s just not an undulation in the landscape – it’s just flat. And you had these clay pans – which you do see in the film. There’s something that makes you feel incredibly diminutive in this expansive… you feel quite dwarfed by space. Rather than civilisation, it’s just landscape eating you up. I find it quite liberating. I remember just seeing a flock of emus and just… Initially I was just seduced by this incredible bird running on the planes. Seeing that on my way into Brewarrina was just breathtaking. But then, over relationships and over tea, someone would tell me a little more about particular cultural stories for that area. There’s a lot of lore with the emu. And in this particular community, there are particular stories that are prescribed to the emu.

WAYNE BLAIR

When I was developing this story, Frayne and I were very strong about creating strong male representations in this film. It was very easy to depict a very different type of father. We were very adamant about having a character that was quite aspirational, because there are a lot of stereotypes…

I thought I was going to cast someone in the community, and that fell through because it meant he’d be away from work and then he wouldn’t get paid and it was going to create complications. I was speaking to my friend Essie Davis, and she said ‘why don’t you cast Wayne? Here’s his email.’ I sent him an email, and I made a little teaser: a two-minute little taste of the film. I just introduced myself, a little bit about myself and the project and my relationship with the community. In like five minutes it was like BING! And he said ‘I can’t open this; can you send the link again?’ So I sent the link again. Five minutes later – BING! ‘I love it! Send me the script. It’s beautiful.’ And then the following night at nine o’clock at night the phone rang. ‘Hi. It’s Wayne. I read the script.’ I said, ‘Oh great.’ ‘Have you got time to talk, I need to talk to you.’ I talked to him for two hours. And he said – ‘I love the script, I was waiting for it to fall over. I kept waiting. I got to Melbourne. I read it on my way to Melbourne. First Act, I was waiting for it to fall over. Second Act, I’m still reading it. Third Act, end of the film. I love this film. Why should I be making this film by a white woman? This story has to be told. Why haven’t you got funding? Why hasn’t it happened’. And I said ‘it’s complex, but I need to make this film. I made a promise to my friend.’

Emu Runner will have its premiere at the Adelaide Film Festival, which is on October 10 – 21, 2018

Standing L-R: Wayne Blair, director Imogen Thomas, Mary Waites, Georgia Blizzard, Letisha Boney, Rob Carlton and introducing Rhae-Kye Waites (front) with Cora. Photo by Christiana Ferreira.

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